“Ha! And I bet you didn’t even see it coming!”
– Dread Emperor Traitorous the First
I took a sip from my tankard, forcing myself not to grimace at the taste.
The ale here was worse than the Nest’s, which I wouldn’t have believed possible until actually drinking this stuff. Finding an inn that was low-brow enough for someone of my means but still saw enough traffic to be worth my time had taken most of yesterday’s afternoon, but I believed the effort to have been worth it: the Lost Crown was a breeding ground for discontent if I’d ever seen one. The evening bell hadn’t rung yet but the common room was more than half full – and not a single man or woman in it had come without a weapon. Every single one was Callowan, most of them were over forty and quite a few had scars. Not the kind you got in the back alley fights I was familiar with, but the kind you got when someone had done their level best to kill you and barely come up short. I’d bet apples to rubies that nine of ten were Royal Guard during the Conquest. It was a good thing that the purse Scribe had provided me had been full of Marchford silver, because if I’d used denarii here I would have gotten my throat slit before the night was out.
I drew mistrustful glares, of course, though not as many as I would have expected. My sword’s grip had been covered in a weathered leather wrap that hid the damning silver goblin’s head, but the sight of a girl my age with a weapon of that quality had been enough to warrant cautious looks. My one advantage, the thing I’d been banking on, was that I was of Deoraithe colouring. And when have any of the People made truce with the Enemy? Callowan children were raised on stories about the unflinching brown-cloaked wardens and the way they hunted orcs all the way back to the steppes when they dared to come in sight of the Wall. That the Duchess of Daoine had bent the knee in the wake of the Conquest had not been enough to ruin that reputation: people remembered that the northern duchy was the only part of Callow where no Imperial Governors ruled. Daoine was as good as a kingdom of its own, these days, and though it paid tribute to the Tower even the Legions tread lightly that far up north. The last of free Callow, whispers called it.
“You want me to top that off?” the innkeeper suddenly spoke up, jarring me out of my thoughts.
Toothless Thom was a balding, gregarious man. His name was a bit of an exaggeration: he still had most of his molars, though admittedly some of them were chipped. He’d taken an ogre’s war hammer to the face at the Fields, as he’d been eager to tell me. Lucky I had my shield up, he’d confided. Otherwise I’d be called Headless Thomas and my idiot brother would have gotten the inn. The place had been called the Guard’s Rest, once, but Thom had changed the name when he’d come from the war. That a man who’d been at the battle where Callow’s royal line had been ended had called his inn the Lost Crown made it perfectly clear where his sympathies still lay.
“No,” I told him. “Want to keep my head clear. I have a question for you, though.”
The older man raised an eyebrow. “That so,” he said, tone neutral.
“I’m looking for work,” I said. “Purse is getting a bit empty.”
He shrugged. “I ain’t hiring, though some of the taverns by the fortress are.”
“Not that kind of work. I’m looking for a ring.”
He shot me a considering look. “There’s one under the Lucky Pilgrim. It ain’t that hard to find.”
“I’ve already been,” I admitted.
I’d gone for a look earlier in the day. Bigger place than the Pit had ever managed to become, with a court under the tavern itself where people went at each other with fists and weapons. It wasn’t, however, the kind of place I needed.
“Lots of greenskins in the crowd,” I murmured after a moment.
Now that got his attention. I drank a mouthful of ale to hide how nervous I felt – I’d never been the best of liars, so I’d decided to stick to the truth as much as possible. If I got caught, though… There were a lot of former soldiers in the crowd around me, and if they decided I was a Praesi spy then my odds of getting out with all my innards on the inside weren’t looking too good.
“What’d you do in Laure, Cat?” Thom asked.
“Served drinks when I could,” I replied. “Fought in a ring when I couldn’t.”
“You’re a little young for that,” he noted.
“I was ranked third in the Pit,” I retorted, and I didn’t have to fake my pride in that. “Would have been first by now, if I’d stuck around.”
“Your parents must have been proud,” the balding man snorted.
“Raised in an Imperial orphanage, then,” he spoke, tone turning sharp.
“Didn’t stop the fucking Governor from taxing us,” I replied just as sharply.
I met his glare with one of my own, refusing to back down, and after a moment his gaze softened.
“No offence meant, kid,” he said.
“None taken,” I grunted back.
“So why’d you leave, if you were doing so well?” Thom probed, changing tracks.
“Mazus’ cut kept getting bigger and mine kept shrinking,” I groused. “Heard things were better here.”
“Lot more greenskins here than in the capital,” the innkeeper pointed out.
“Lot more veterans too,” I answered the unspoken question.
The balding man chewed on that for some time, eyeing me all the while.
“I might know of a place,” he admitted. “Ain’t exactly a ring, but close enough.”
I raised an eyebrow. “It pays?”
The innkeep offered me a toothless smile. “In more ways than one. You’ll need to strip first, though. With my daughter in the room.”
I kept my face straight but inside I was grinning like a fool. It had been a gamble to try to get my foot in the door on the second day, but it looked like it had paid off. And a good thing too – I couldn’t have kept this game up for more than another day before moving on. I could still feel the other claimants in the city, and the longer I waited the further ahead they got in their own hunts. More than that, I had a liability to worry about that neither Chider nor Tamika did. The masked imbecile hadn’t made a repeat appearance yet, but how long could that possibly last? Getting into a fight with someone so obviously Praesi would shut down this avenue of investigation, and at the moment I was coming up empty on other ways. Thom called over his daughter, a slender blonde girl in a conservative blouse who split her time between the kitchen and serving drinks. She had rather striking grey eyes, I noticed. Rare, for a Callowan: blue and brown were much more common.
“Elise,” the innkeeper spoke, leaning in close. “Keep an eye on our little friend while she changes, eh? She’s going to be joining our cousins for drinks.”
The girl nodded, steering me towards one of the rooms in the back.
“Lucky you,” Elise said, closing the door behind me. “This is the first meeting since the Governess died.”
I made a noncommittal noise, hiding my excitement. Meeting. That sounds promising. I took off my woollen shirt before opening my belt and slipped out of my trousers, dropping them next to me on the ground. I was about to take off my socks when she raised a hand.
“That’s enough,” she said, taking a step to look at my bare back.
Those pretty eyes of hers, I noted, lingered on my arse longer than was strictly necessary. Or proper. I wouldn’t have minded the attention in other circumstances – she was a comely one, if not exactly my type – but this wasn’t really the time or the place. I dressed again as soon as she gave me a nod of approval, shifting my scabbard so it rested comfortably against my hip.
“Nice sword,” Elise mused. “Where’d you get it?”
“It was a gift,” I replied.
She wiggled her eyebrows. “Generous lover?”
I choked. “Oh, Gods no. A teacher, I suppose.”
“He must have liked you. I’ve been meaning to learn how to use one – maybe you should show me how good you’re at handling yours, one of these days,” she said, smiling wickedly.
Ah, Callowan girls. So much more straightforward about our interests than coy Proceran ladies or haughty Free Cities maids. I doubted Elise would be as eager to get me into a dark corner if she knew I intended to ram a sword into the local hero’s belly, but there was no need to draw suspicion by turning her down. Besides, it had been a while for me. Between the Pit and my evenings at the Nest, I hadn’t had much time to pursue the softer things in life – and I doubted that would change anytime soon, given how Black loved to pile ever more work on my shoulders.
“I’m sure that would be quite the evening,” I replied, a smile tugging at my lips.
“Only one way to find out,” Elise smirked, opening the door and striding away into the common room.
I closed the door behind me, pretending not to notice the amused look Thom shot me. There was a man sitting on the stool I’d occupied, studying me without even pretending not to. Late forties, I’d guess, and his thick salt and pepper beard didn’t quite manage to cover the handful of scars adorning his face. His hair was thinning, though there was enough left that it lent him a dignified look.
“You’re Cat, I take it,” he ground out when I walked up to them.
“That’s me,” I agreed. “And you are?”
“Remaining nameless, even if you don’t have the fecking eye,” the man growled. “This is shite, Thom. Nobody can vouch for her.”
“We need new blood,” the innkeeper spoke in a low voice. “You know they Imps have been keeping an eye on veterans since the Governess got offed. Besides, the boy can have a look at her.”
The boy, I repeated silently. Now, isn’t that interesting? Even if I learned nothing else of worth tonight, that particular tidbit had made my gambit worth it.
“I asked for work,” I told both of them. “Not the keys to your secret clubhouse.”
The grizzled man spat in his empty mug. “On your head, Toothless,” he finally said. “Come on, girl, we’re going for a walk.”
I smiled at him pleasantly. “Well, since you ask so charmingly.”
We left through the back, after the still-nameless grump slapped a younger woman on the shoulder and she joined us. She didn’t introduce herself either, cautiously eyeing me through her bangs as she kept a hand on the hilt of the bastard sword at her hip. The sky was beginning to darken, so we kept a steady pace: since the assassination of Governess Lindiwe the city had been put under martial law and curfew was strictly enforced. Anyone out after sundown without authorization papers would be arrested, and anyone resisting arrest would be put to the sword without hesitation. The city guard was no longer the only force policing the streets, either: the Sixth Legion sent regular patrols and the Ninth had occupied all gates.
“So where are we headed?” I asked when the silence became more tedious than tense.
“The Royal Foundry,” the woman informed me, rolling her eyes when the man glared at her.
“I thought the Empire owned that now,” I frowned.
“They occupied the main one, the one that provided for the Royal Guard,” the swordswoman explained. “The Legions never bothered with the ones that provided for the local troops, since they make their own weapons.”
Ah, that made a certain amount of sense. The Legions of Terror were armed with equipment forged in the south of the Wasteland, in Foramen. Exceptions could be made in time of war when there was a pressing need for resupply, but usually they preferred waiting for the armaments and armour coming straight from the Imperial Forges. There’d have been no real point in taking the smaller foundries, after the war: the main one would serve just fine for the maintenance work required by the occupying legions.
“Enough with the history lesson,” the jackass growled. “Quiet until we get there.”
The younger woman offered me an apologetic shrug, but she complied. The outer city of Summerholm was different from Laure. Unlike Callow’s old capital, which had grown over the years as the wealth and people flowed in from the rest of the Kingdom, Summerholm had clearly been designed. The streets were of the same width everywhere, wide enough that bowmen on the walls circling the inner city could have a clear shot at anybody down here. Watchtowers, now occupied by legionaries, loomed over every choke point. More than once we passed by dead-end streets full of arrow slits, killing fields in the making for anyone taking a wrong turn. The Gate of the East had not been made with commerce or industry in mind: it was more castle than city, built so that it could be turned into a death trap for invading Praesi armies. The knowledge that even after twenty years of occupation the people born in the city likely knew the ins and outs of it better than the Legions did nothing for my peace of mind.
“We’re here,” the grizzled veteran announced abruptly. “Get in before we’re seen.”
The Royal Foundry was nothing spectacular to look at, which I supposed was rather the point. The building was solid old wood, with a metal spike above the door where a sign must have hung at some point – there was none now, though. The door was unlocked and the swordswoman pushed it open without knocking while our cheerful companion cast mistrustful looks around the empty street. I followed her in, squinting as my eyesight got used to the poor lighting inside. The large cast iron furnace that took up the better part of the left wall was lit, glowing even though the forge on the other side of the room was dead and cold. Expensive way to light the place. I followed the more pleasant of my guides as she headed for a room in the back, already hearing the low murmur of conversation from where I stood.
The area we entered must have served as a stockroom, back when this place was still active: there were empty weapon racks for weapons and armour all over the place, some tipped down to serve as impromptu seats for the two dozen people occupying the room. I drew a few curious looks when I came in, but nothing like the degree of cautious hostility I’d been expecting. They only bring people they trust here, then, I mused. But if that’s the case, why bring me? I didn’t think this was a trap, but I was definitely missing something. Like back in the Lost Crown, everybody but me was far past thirty: there was an even enough spread between men and women, and though none of them wore armour they all had a blade of some kind. And they look like they know how to use them. If I wasn’t mistaken, I’d just been brought to a meeting of the Sons of Streges – Black had mentioned they were largely made up of disaffected veterans. The Sons were always the only resistance group I had a real chance of getting in touch with: the other one was made up of former members of the Thieves” Guild, and I had a feeling they’d be both much more secretive and much harder to find. The bearded man came in, scowling at me as he stopped by the door.
“Take a seat, girl,” he grunted. “We’ll start when the Swordsman gets here.”
“It’s true, then,” I murmured, trying to sound surprised. “There’s a hero in Summerholm.”
“You’ll get to meet him soon enough,” the veteran replied. “He’s a perceptive lad, the Lone Swordsman. Caught five spies already. If he says you ain’t one, you ain’t.”
I nodded, keeping my face unconcerned Shit. Shitshitshit. Lone Swordsman didn’t sound like the kind of Name that would lend itself to truth-telling, but if he’d already outed agents placed by Black then he must have a trick of some kind. I took a deep breath, sitting down on a sideways rack. If the trick was just that he could tell when someone was lying, then I might be able to talk my way out of this mess. I hadn’t been sent by Black or any Imperial authority, technically. I wasn’t loyal to the Empire either, so it might be possible to work with that. But if he asks me whether I intend to kill him I’m fucked. I closed my eyes and slowly got a grip on my panic, taking steady breaths. I wasn’t out of options yet.
My first instinct was to position myself close to the door so that I could turn this into a running battle if blades came out, but I discarded the option. I was being watched, and making that sort of move would be as good as outing myself. Would I be able to take the hero in a fight? Maybe. His Name seemed centred around swordsmanship, though, which did not bode well for me considering I had a grand total of eight days of sword lessons under my belt. And I definitely can’t take both him and the Sons at the same time.
Stupid of me to expect that if they had a trick to find out spies they wouldn’t use it on every possible occasion instead of only when they thought they had a leak. On the bright side, that meant the process was unlikely to be painful or particularly powerful: it wouldn’t be used as often if it were. Could heroes tell when they were in the presence of a villain? I couldn’t find this Lone Swordsman the way I could my rival claimants, but I wasn’t the Squire yet. There was no real way to tell what kind of abilities his Role would allow him to access, even now that I knew his Name. My private debate was cut short when the man in question entered the room through a back door, not that it had been going anywhere productive.
Even if the room hadn’t gone respectfully silent the moment he’d entered, I would have known I was looking at a hero. He couldn’t have been much older than seventeen, darkly handsome with messy black hair and vivid green eyes. His face was one made for brooding, all angles and windswept locks, and his long brown leather coat did nothing to detract from that impression. A leather coat. Gods. Why wasn’t he clapped in chains the moment he passed through the city gates? If he was any more obviously a hero he’d have his Name tattooed on his forehead. The longsword at his hip did not glint in the light, the metal pommel swallowing the ambient light whole and giving nothing back. Enchanted? That could be trouble. He moved with the certainty of an older man, and all the other people in the room straightened their spines unconsciously when they saw him.
“No need to get up on my account,” the Swordsman said, raising a warding hand at the few people who’d gotten to their feet. “We’re all equals here, my friends.”
“Some more equal than some,” a woman in the back called out, but it was said fondly.
“We all have our burdens to bear,” the hero replied easily. “But we’ve shared in one victory already, and I promise you that more are to come. The Black Knight himself is in the city, and that is an occasion we won’t be getting again anytime soon.”
I let myself fade into the background as the Lone Swordsman strode into the middle of the room, commanding everyone’s attention with a kind of effortlessness I could only envy. Was it natural charisma on his part, or a side-effect of his Name? Whatever it was, veterans twice his age were hanging on to his every word.
“We still have half of the munitions from the raid on the Sixth Legion’s armoury,” he said. “And with those backed by a little cleverness, I propose to put down the monster who brought ruin to the Kingdom.”
Murmurs of approval went through the room at the declaration.
“It’ll take more than goblin alchemies to kill that man,” a voice cut through the noise, cold as ice.
Leaning against the wall on the far side of the room, an older man built like an ox was frowning. His head was shaved but auburn whiskers covered the side of his face, leading into a thick beard of the same colouring.
“I was there when he killed the White Wizard with Warlock’s help,” the man spoke flatly. “Half a bridge he dropped on those two, and they walked out of the wreckage like it was light drizzle.”
“We already know munitions can kill Named,” the Swordsman replied. “The Empire proved as much during the Conquest.”
“They can kill run-of-the-mill Named, maybe,” the man grunted. “You’re dealing with the bleedin’ Calamities, boy.”
“I am not a run-of-the-mill hero, my friend,” the green-eyed boy said very softly. “I swore I would see the Kingdom restored, and I will see that oath through to the bitter end.”
Oh, gag me. Did he think that making some kind of dramatic promise over someone’s grave would actually help him kill the likes of Black? I stopped and thought about it for a moment. Hells, it actually might. Roles take to that kind of theatre like a duck to water. Whether the doubter was actually convinced or just cowed by the uncomfortably emotional display on the Swordsman’s part was up in the air, bur regardless he objected no further. The crowd was against him, anyway: they were eager for blood, and their success with the Governess had only whet the appetite.
“Before we get to the planning,” another man spoke up, and with a start I recognized my earlier guide’s voice, “we have new blood for you to look over.”
Everybody’s eyes turned to me and I fought down the urge to shrink on myself. It was time for my moment of truth, though hopefully not a literal one – that could get messy.
“So,” I said as I pushed myself up, wiping dust off of my trousers. “How’s this going to work? Do I need to strike a pose? Word of warning – if poetry is involved, I’m definitely not your girl.”
The Lone Swordsman smiled, which made him look like someone was pulling up his lips forcefully. Not a great smiler, this one.
“Just come a little closer,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m going by Cat,” I told him, watching his face to see if it registered as a lie.
If it did, this was going to go downhill very quickly. The hero frowned.
“What colour is the sky, Cat?” he asked.
“Depends on the time of the day,” I pointed out.
Someone snorted, though they hastily turned it into a coughing fit. The Swordsman sighed and patiently waited for me to give an actual answer.
“Blue,” I said.
The hero’s frown deepened.
“That’s strange,” he said.
“People usually wait to know me a few days before making that comment,” I replied.
“I can’t read you at all,” the Lone Swordsman murmured. “That’s never happened before.”
“If I had a silver for every time I heard that line-”
I didn’t see the strike coming, but I felt it. There was a blur of movement and my body reacted on its own, my sword swinging out of its scabbard and ringing against his own before it could come any closer to my head. There was a moment of painful realization where it struck me that I had moved much, much too quickly for mundane human.
“Well,” I mused, pushing back his blade. “This is awkward.”
“Traitor,” someone hissed.
“Technically,” I corrected the voice, “I’m the only person in this room not committing treason.”
Two dozen blades coming out of scabbards were my only response. Tough crowd.
“Now,” I spoke, voice calm and steady as I backed away. “I know what all of you are asking yourselves right now. Is that girl a spy?”
Two of the rebels were blocking the door, I saw from the corner of my eye.
“The answer to that question may surprise you,” I continued.
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“Is it yes?” someone called out from the back. “Is the answer to the question yes?”
It was not, I reminded myself, appropriate to start cracking up before your desperate final stand.
“Shut up, Beric,” someone growled. “Obviously the answer is yes.”
“You guys never let me win anything,” Beric complained.
Beric, I decided, was going to die last. He’d earned it. The Lone Swordsman brought up his sword and fell into a stance I didn’t recognize.
“You’re surrounded, villain,” the hero said. “There’s no one around to hear you if you call for help. Surrender and you might yet live.”
I felt safe in assuming that diplomacy was not one of his aspects.
“Ah, but you have it the other way around,” I replied haughtily, trying to stand as tall as my diminutive stature allowed for. Why was everyone always so tall? “It is, in fact, all of you who have fallen in my trap. Surrender now and will spare you most of the torture, unless one of you gives me lip.”
The Swordsman scowled. “You’re full of shit,” he growled.
Given that there were two Named in the room, it seemed fair that that was the precise moment where the back of the room exploded. Most of the Sons of Streges were thrown to the ground by the impact and I had to take a knee. Smoke and dust had been blown everywhere, I might as well have been standing in the middle of a sandstorm as far as visibility was concerned. I could make out a silhouette in the smoke, too tall to be a goblin and not broad enough to be an orc.
“Rashid,” I called out. “If that’s you, then for the first time in your life I think you actually need to be commended on your entrance.”
Tamika came out of the smoke instead, black-veiled and grim-eyed. Her spear was nowhere in sight but she held a crossbow in her arms, pointed at the Lone Swordsman.
“I’m guessing Chider’s somewhere in this mess?” overhearing the sound of fighting out of sight as I asked the Soninke girl.
The hero sneered and half-turned so he’d be facing both of us.
“She’s coming,” Tamika agreed calmly, speaking in Mthethwa. “I feel like I should apologize, Catherine.”
That was the part where I was supposed to ask what for, I assumed. Instead I threw myself to the side and the bolt sunk into the wall. The Lone Swordsman eyed the both of us warily.
“What in the Burning Heavens is going on?” he asked.
“My plan is working,” I lied.